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Review – Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock

posted on October 18th, 2006 by christian

Well here it is folks. After much trial and delay, the world can finally partake in a new Sam & Max game. Since my only experience with these two characters comes from a handful of viewings of the old Fox Kids cartoon show, my interest in seeing new Sam & Max was quite neutral. Yet my desire to play the new game has been quite high, for no other reason than my great interest in the way in which it was developed. This has to be one of the biggest gambles the industry has seen this generation, one that I hope to see succeed.

After Lucasarts decided to waffle around and eventually can their efforts on a new game, creator Steven Purcell looked towards small developer Telltale Games to start anew. Since Telltale is the brains behind the episodic content of the new Bone game, so too would Sam & Max be released in episodes. Not only that, but Telltale has decided to stick to their guns and create another adventure game for the duo, rather than adapting to modern times and creating something more mainstream. Even crazier is the fact that the game wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of Time Warner’s Gametap online service, which appears to have offered both financial support and a means of distribution (each episode debuts on Gametap before being availble for commercial release two weeks later).

The most upbeat strangulation I have yet to witness.

So we have an episodic adventure game based on a cult classic that survived thanks to the persistence of a dedicated fanbase and interest by a company that is constantly trying to prove its worth to gamers. There is a lot to prove here, and the first step towards doing so is to produce a quality game. Read on for the verdict of Sam and Max Episode 1: Culture Shock.

One of the first things the player will notice about this game is that there is no tutorial or intro of any sort. This would seem to spell doom for a modern game, but not only is Culture Shock an adventure game, it is a very traditional one. Left click makes Sam walk around or interact with objects in the world, while right click skips through dialogue. Inventory and options are clearly marked icons on the screen. That’s all you need to know in order to play the game, and it is indeed refreshing to see a game with a two minute, rather than two hour, learning curve.

There is a temptation to spruce up the adventure formula with combat, platforming or other junk, but this genre has always been about puzzles and sharp dialogue, so I’m very much glad to see that this is still the focus. Perhaps the one thing that has been improved is the game environment, which is rendered with a solid, cartoony 3d engine that won’t amaze but doesn’t offend the eyes, and seems to fit very well with the artistic feel of Sam & Max (at least from what I’ve seen of it). This makes it easy both to navigate the game world and recognize areas of interaction. The fact that interactive items are labeled when you move your mouse over them also helps in this regard. Hiding items and clues in cryptic areas might have made adventure games of old more challenging, but it is a design choice I don’t particularly miss.

So the game looks clean and controls well. This is a very good start, since it is often the little things that can hamper a particularly good game. But if Sam and Max are going to win us over, it needs to provide solid puzzles and humor that is worthy of Purcell’s original comic serials. The quality of the puzzles depends a lot on the player. They’re the usual adventure game fare; you’ll either be looking for items or accomplishing a task (usually with the help of items). If you are a longtime fan of this genre you probably won’t be hung up much if at all. Most of the items have very clear uses so you can tell which have an immediate use (like a videotape), and which require some special condition (such as the boxing glove). The inventory also stays relatively small throughout, so even if you try to win through brute trial and error, a puzzle will never take your more than five minutes or so.

Mmm, creamsicle.

Despite all this, most potential players are probably likely unfamiliar with adventure gaming, in which case they should find the game’s difficulty just right, while fans should get a kick from just solving some puzzles after all these years. Perhaps Telltale will up the difficulty in future installments as the fanbase grows with the game.

I have absolutely no clue if the humor here is anything close to classic Sam and Max. I’m sure that plenty of reviews from old fans will pop up to either praise or roast it. What I do know is that it is quite good regardless. The humor is a mix of anecdotes, outrageous observations on the people and things around them, and a few pop culture references, told in either Sam’s blunt, honest fashion or Max’s dark and violent outbursts.

As one might expect, these characters are very set in their ways, hence the jokes follow a very specific style. However, the quality of the writing is so sharp that you’ll never know exactly what anyone will say. It reminds me of Family Guy. Instead of constantly trying to prove to the audience just how smart and clever they are, the writers at Telltale do and say exactly what they want, and are careful to choose just the right jokes for the situation. It never feels like it is pandering, nor does it condescend the player who isn’t smart or fast enough to keep up with it all. It’s a healthy mix of maturity and playfulness that should resonate with people of many ages. A few jokes fall flat on their faces, but all in all this is another example of how important quality writing is to this industry.

I didn’t know what to expect with this one, but I know now that I cannot wait for more Sam and Max. This is one of the most laid back and lighthearted experiences I’ve had in quite a while, a chance to get away from steep learning curves and a mountain of objectives in order to just sit back and beat a couple mind benders while enjoying some dialogue that, for once, is actually entertaining. Will it spark a massive revival of adventure games? Probably not, but it does do a fine job of providing another good piece of episodic gaming, short and sweet and bursting with love and care. Telltale is off to a great start. Now let’s see what is in store for the rest of Season 1.

7 Comments

  1. pat said on October 19, 2006:

    i played Sam and Max Hit the Road probably ten or more years ago.  it had a great sense of humor and cool style.  it was one of the games i remember most fondly from my pc adventure game period.  no point to this comment, other than i liked the old game and hope to get my hands on these new ones (although its been years since ive bought a pc game).

  2. jay said on October 19, 2006:

    This is from the 1up review:

     

    "Each
    little cartoon snippet you unlock is fun, but eventually you find
    yourself asking why you have to do so much work for them — it’s like
    watching a cartoon on a DVD player powered by a hand crank."

     

    At first I wanted to say that every adventure game is like this, but really very few games integrate plot and gameplay. Nine out of ten games have you play, watch, play, watch, etc. In other words, this is a stupid complaint to make against Sam and Max specifically.

  3. Stefan said on October 19, 2006:

    Man I loved the original Sam and Max game.  I still play it on my Zaurus.Speaking as someone who hasn’t yet caved and subscribed to GameTap in order to play the new one, the one thing that worries me from the trailers are that the voices are different, and Max doesn’t sound as happy about his destruction as he used to.On the other hand, they’re supposed to be releasing a new game every month – and from all the reviews I’ve seen this one episode already offers about as much play time as the entire first game! 

  4. Matt said on October 19, 2006:

    Sadly, I completely missed out on all Lucasarts adventure games. I actually didn’t get a computer until my senior year of high school, back in 2000. I desperately want to play these games, as well as Grim Fandango and Secret of Monkey Island. I really wish Windows could run older games natively, and not have to wait for a patch for each game, which never happens anyway. 

  5. Christian said on October 19, 2006:

    Jay- they’ll praise FF12 for doing the same thing

  6. zooz said on October 30, 2006:

    Ey Matt get DosBox, its a Dos emulator…and I can assure you you can get those games on the web, try Abandonware on Google, or go to Abandonia, this year on a Pentium 4 I played Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and King’s Quest 6… on DosBox so start searching because you can play them now!
     

  7. Matt said on October 31, 2006:

    Awesome zooz, that’s great news! I can’t wait to set that up now. I love text/adventure games like Phoenix Wright, and wish they were more abundant nowadays. 

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